Egypt re-invigorates its role as Mideast peacemaker

Next week President Hosni Mubarak goes to the US to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace, and US aid to Egypt.

Cozying up to Israel has long been a risky strategy for the world's most populous Arab country. It doesn't get any easier when key political figures, such as Egyptian presidential spokesman Ossama al-Baz, have spent much of the past year bad-mouthing their Jewish neighbors. But Egypt - the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel (in 1978) - is again becoming a serious broker between Israelis and Palestinians.

In recent weeks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has re-invigorated his nation's diplomatic efforts, with the express intention of getting both sides talking again - and the less explicit goal of smoothing the way for his visit next week to the United States. Mr. Mubarak and President Bush have reportedly been in regular phone contact about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"As the leader of the most influential Arab nation, Mubarak has been trying to rectify America's lately dismissive attitude toward the Palestinians," says Abdel Azim Ramadan, an Egyptian historian and peace campaigner. "Ever since Sept. 11, it has become crucial for the Arab world to articulate itself and work to resolve its own disputes," he adds. "This is exactly what Egypt is trying to do now."

The Egyptians have been exerting pressure on Yasser Arafat to stop the intifada's destructive suicide bombing campaign. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the highest authority in Sunni Islam and a political ally of Mr. Mubarak, has reminded Muslims that suicide bombers who kill innocent civilians will not become martyrs. His personal assistant, Sheikh Omar Batawassy, speaking from the minaretted Al Azhar mosque, says Sheikh Tantawi is clear on this issue.

"The Sheikh has said many times that suicide bombers who kill innocents are not martyrs," says Mr. Batawassy. "Only those bombers who kill the attackers of the Palestinian people can be considered martyrs. Those who say otherwise go against the truth of Islam."

Since the start of the year, Egypt has been resolutely engaged in this diplomatic balancing act: supporting the politically hobbled Palestinian leader; while controversially listening to the official Israeli point of view.

On Feb. 5, Mubarak dispatched Omar Suleiman, his intelligence chief, to Palestinian territory, where he conveyed the Egyptian leader's disappointment at recent events.

"After leaving Arafat in the cold for several months [including the weeks following the Israeli seizure Jan. 3 of a boatload of Iranian-made weapons destined for the Palestinians], Egypt decided that it had to resume contact; otherwise the chance to negotiate peace could be lost," says Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

After the Suleiman trip, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent his political adviser to Cairo for talks with presidential right-hand man Ossama al Baz; a meeting which followed the January visit of two key Israeli opposition figures who talked to the the president himself.

But the most visible part of Egypt's campaign was the visit of Binyamin Ben-Eleizer, Israel's defense minister, to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh late last month. The meeting between the Israeli and the president was allegedly so warm that the former even found time to crack an off-color joke, which left aides smiling. Even Israel has welcomed Egypt's attempts to reposition itself as an honest broker.

"The Egyptians have finally realized that there can be no significant developments with the peace process if, whilst trying to help, they only listen to one side," says Ayellet Yehiav, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. "We welcome their efforts with Arafat. And we hope that they restore their ambassador to Israel so that they can continue to make more influential contributions."

Egypt's diplomacy is not entirely altruistic. Israelis point to Mubarak's scheduled visit to Washington from March 2-6 as the real motivator behind efforts. Others say a potential $10.3 billion international aid package designed to rescue Egypt from economic disaster (partially prompted by the tourist slump since Sept. 11) also accounts for the recent spate of hard work.

The issue of wider economic stability is also a key factor. "A working peace process is a prerequisite for economic stability and growth," says Professor Shahin. "If negotiations break down completely, it impacts directly on Egypt because less investment will take place."

Mubarak, like leaders all over the Arab world, is also warily eyeing a forthcoming Arab Summit, to be held in Beirut in late March. Arafat is currently restricted from leaving Ramallah by the Israeli authorities. An Arafat no-show at the summit would be politically devastating for the entire region.

"Not only would it seriously damage the Palestinian cause, but it would also make our leaders look weak in the face of Israeli aggression," says Shahin.

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